Thursday, April 3, 2014

Not a Bestseller, not that Old, not really Forgotten: A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

This series of reviews is intended to cover books that were bestsellers back in roughly the first half of the 20th Century (let's say 1880 to just after 1950 maybe), but which are (usually) largely forgotten now. But this time I'm writing about the book I just finished, which is not all that old (it was published in 1967), which was presumably not a true bestseller (though it probably sold well enough, and has kept selling for decades), and which is surely not forgotten ... though at the same time it is in a sense not all that widely known. (I say that perhaps because I had not heard of it before a profile of the author appeared last year in the New Yorker.)

So, sorry. But what the heck. James Salter was born in 1925 into a wealthy family as James Arnold Horowitz. He attended West Point during the War and graduated more or less as it ended. He became a pilot and flew fighters in Korea, then wrote a successful novel, The Hunters, based on that experience. This became a well-received film starring Robert Mitchum. He published the novel under the pseudonym James Salter, and then another Air Force-based novel, The Arm of Flesh, in 1961. After the success of The Hunters, he left active duty and joined the Reserve, then resigned his commission entirely shortly after The Arm of Flesh came out. Not much later he legally changed his name to James Salter. All this seems a purposeful bifurcation of a life -- the first part as a reasonably successful Air Force pilot, then a reinvention as a writer. Later he even largely repudiated his first two novels, calling them products of youth and "not meriting much attention". (Or so says Wikipedia.)

Once he became a full-time writer he spent much of his time writing for films, and presumably that's how he made a regular living. (Perhaps most notable among his film work is the Robert Redford vehicle Downhill Racer.) But he has also written quite a number of short stories and four additional novels, the latest being All That Is, which appeared in 2013, when he turned 88. His work is in general very highly regarded, particularly for his prose. But it is his first novel published after leaving the Air Force that remains his masterpiece, the work upon which his reputation continues to rest (and apparently his own favorite).

A Sport and a Pastime is a fairly short novel, less than 60,000 words I would think. It is told by an unnamed narrator, an American in his mid-30s, who borrows a house in provincial France from a friend. The novel opens with the man's train journey from Paris to Autun, to take this house in this sleepy town. Notable from the beginning, I would think, is the "male gaze" ... his view is constantly of women -- on the train, waiting for the train, in the town. He is soon obsessed with a neighbor named Madame Picquet, clearly with no hope of progress on that front. Then a chance-met young man named Philip Dean, a dropout from Yale, shows up to share his house.

One had wondered when the real action of the book would start, and here it is: for the novel is primarily about Philip Dean's affair with a 19 year old girl, Anne Marie. Dean is a bit of a sponge, relying on the narrator for his lodging, and on his father and sister for what little money he has. He spends several months with Anne Marie, mostly driving from hotel to hotel in various provicial towns. The novel is frankly and quite explicitly erotic ... their lovemaking is described in detail, again and again. (The introduction, by Reynolds Price, points out that this is a product of the liberation writers felt after the Lady Chatterly's Lover suit, as a result of which Grove Press was allowed to sell their edition of that novel in the US.) Their relationship is curious and sad and unequal, but which is the weaker person is hard to discern. Its ultimate end seems clear from the start, though even so Salter allows us some ambiguity.

And yet ... and yet ... this is all told from the point of view of the narrator, who was obviously not present for much of the action. He warns us, as readers, that most of what he tells us is fantasy. So what does it really mean? Is he recounting his own fantasies of the relation of Philip and Anne Marie (and I don't think it would be wrong to say that the book hints that he is attracted to both of them)? Does he have access to some more explicit account from Philip (say) of what went on? Is he to be taken as a sort of metafictional representation of the "novelist"? Is the novel really about his own sterility, his own frustrations in love? Perhaps some of all of that ... I dare say you could find critical works by better readers than I looking into that question.

The basic story is itself involving enough, and the characters are quite perfectly portrayed. But what makes the novel is the prose -- what makes Salter special, really, is the prose. As Richard Ford is quoted on the cover of my edition (a Farrar, Straus and Giroux trade paperback currently in print): "Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master." Recently in the Guardian a blogger wondered about great sentences in genre fiction, then complained that most of the most famous seemed aphoristic, then quoted two counter-examples from "literary" fiction, of which one (from Samuel Beckett) was as aphoristic (perhaps more so) than any of the genre quotes, and the other, from James Joyce, was Joyce at his most annoyingly pretentious (but don't get me wrong, some of Joyce (just not the sentence quoted) is really really remarkable). Salter is different -- the sentences are mostly short (Hemingway is one cited model) -- sometimes they are fragments. The rhythm is exquisite. Cliche is almost non-existent. (Though he slips once or twice.) Rarely he tries for something grander, and when he does I think it works: "The lights grow fainter now, the sound, and finally all of France, invisible now, silent, the France of all seasons deep in the silence of night, is left behind." The observation is precise and surprising. Other examples: "Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit." "Canals, rich as jade, pass between us, canals in which wide barges lie. The water is green with scum. One could almost write on the surface." "Over France a great summer rain, battering the trees, making the foliage ring like tin." But in reality it all runs together -- the images, the rhythm, the music.

So -- not forgotten, but still worth being more widely known.


  1. Lovely review of one of my favorite books.

  2. Your review makes me want to pull my copy of this book and other of Salter's off my bookshelf, but even if I do, I know they will be returned without being read. I even have a copy of his latest waiting to not be read. Don't ask because I can't explain.